The write stuff
Helping engineering students express their ideas in writing
General Engineering (EG) 1004 holds 24 sections that attract some 350 first-year students each semester. In addition to the core faculty members, that requires a veritable army of highly trained TAs from a variety of majors, dedicated to helping Tandon’s newest aspiring engineers acclimate to a rigorous academic program and unfamiliar environment. But the EG program also employs a group of people you might not expect to find at an engineering school: professional writers.
This semester, a trio of writers has been elevated to the rank of lecturer — a development that highlights the fact that being able to articulate ideas is a skill just as vital as working with Arduinos or coding.
Learn more about them below...
First-year students entering NYU Tandon are faced with what can seem like a daunting to-do list that includes getting familiar with the design process, using CAD, managing projects, the ethical considerations and social impacts of their work, how to collaborate in teams ... in other words, they must develop an engineering mindset.
Part of that involves learning to express their ideas effectively. After all, as Sarah Rosenthal, a General Engineering lecturer who teaches academic and technical writing to Tandon’s first-year students, points out, engineers, scientists, and technologists must be able to successfully communicate their work to others. Whether that be scholarly papers that will be reviewed by their peers, grant proposals that will result in getting their research funded, or, in many cases, materials that can convey the importance of their work to a lay audience (see, for example, Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye, to name just two high-profile examples), writing is an indispensable part of the engineering mindset.
Rosenthal, who holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia, says, “Sometimes STEM-focused students don’t initially see why writing is important. They have all come to Tandon wanting to tackle societal challenges and do good in the world, and my goal is to show them how writing can be a valuable tool to have in their toolbox.”
Rosenthal is in the process of penning a collection of essays as well as a novel, but most of her own writing focuses on topics that range from workplace culture to dealing with panic attacks. And while she enjoys the process of writing, she harbors an equal love for teaching the skill. “It’s really an honor to work with students,” she says, “and to help them develop into the people they came here to Tandon to become.” She has also taught at Columbia, Bard, and John Jay.
With generative AI growing ever more sophisticated, does she foresee a time when engineers will simply use ChatGPT to create their written material? “From a historical perspective, there’s always some degree of panic and sensationalism when new technology is created; even the Gutenberg printing press was feared when it was introduced,” she says. “ChatGPT is just a tool, and students still have to learn how to write. We don’t know what the future will hold. My teachers used to tell me I wouldn't always have a calculator in my pocket. Now I do, in the form of my cell phone, but I still need to understand mathematical functions, and in the end, AI may ultimately be a very similar situation.” Her students, she believes, will be important players in determining the role AI will play in the future.
You can be the brightest and most skilled engineer imaginable, General Engineering lecturer Duncan Osborne asserts, but if you don’t have a proper CV and portfolio or if you haven’t developed networking and presentation skills, you might find it difficult to obtain a job.
Given his varied background, Osborne is uniquely qualified to help. The son of an MIT physics professor, he was steeped in science from an early age. “Other families might have had casual conversations around the dinner table, but my father expected any discussions we engaged in to be fact-based, logical, and rigorous,” he recalls.
Osborne also understood early on the power of the written word: his mother served for a time as an editor at MIT Press. After earning a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Colorado and a master’s in journalism from Columbia, Osborne merged the skills he had developed into a freelance career that found him regularly called upon to write science-based articles; in the 1980s, at a time when the topic was widely misunderstood, he frequently wrote about HIV and the AIDS epidemic.
One other thing that makes him a font of information for the approximately 75 students he teaches each semester: his time as an HR recruiter. “At one point, I was hired as a freelancer to conduct research for a headhunting firm,” he explains, “and I turned out to have something of a talent for matching suitable candidates with jobs, so I grew into the position.”
Osborne was hired by late General Engineering Director Gunther Georgi in 2004 and has been excited to watch the program grow and evolve. In addition to hands-on labs involving such skills as boom construction, prototyping with Arduinos, and biomedical forensics, EG now presents ample opportunities to build an e-portfolio and practice public speaking and project presentations, thanks to faculty members like Osborne. He recalls, “I once read a quote from a student who said that while EG was just three credits, it was three credits that could change your entire life.”
General Engineering lecturer David Karlins is the author of some 40 books, and Tandon students count on him to help them develop their capacity to communicate their work and its importance clearly and compellingly. “Engineers have a responsibility,” he asserts, “to present their work in reports that provide actionable insights to not just colleagues, but to society.”
Karlins is also involved in creating courses for LinkedIn Learning on topics revolving around design-to-production workflow, including accessibility. “I’m lucky to be able to call upon my Tandon colleagues for their input,” he says. “For the LinkedIn Learning course in accessibility, for example, my team and I conferred with Industry Assistant Professor Regine Gilbert, who teaches in the Integrated Design & Media program and who is the author of the highly regarded book Inclusive Design for a Digital World: Designing with Accessibility in Mind.
Karlins earned a communications degree from Antioch College in 1987 — just before the emergence of the era of digital, online media. His career practicing and teaching communication design has been in a state of constant evolution since. He taught and mentored students in CUNY’s BFA program for six years before coming to NYU. His pathway to Tandon was somewhat unusual. “I interviewed with the late director of the General Engineering, Gunter Georgi, and I was upfront about not having an engineering background,” he recalled. “In fact, I spent a good portion of the interview sharing how hard it was to get a handle on digital data analytics technology, technique and culture, the topic of a book I had recently co-authored. To my surprise, Professor Georgi said I was someone the program could use — someone who could convey to students the value of communicating effectively in writing and leverage my experience in different realms of technical writing in that process.”
General Engineering’s writing consultants
- Frank Meola
- Jennifer Novicki
- Nathan Schrader
- Christina Trudeau